In the United Kingdom, Rubber Soul’s punning title was made more apparent by album-opener “Drive My Car,” whose warm keys and beep-beep chorus were meant to be a lighthearted rock ‘n’ soul parody. Capitol, the Beatles’ U.S. label, regularly resequenced the or edited the group’s early records. The version of Rubber Soul the label released in late 1965 was missing “Drive My Car,” as well as future classics “Nowhere Man” and “What Goes On,” and the Byrds-influenced “If I Needed Someone.” It was a simple business move, meant to capitalize on the folk-rock movement that the Byrds had helped spearhead. Unwittingly, the out-of-touch Capitol exec who underestimated the Beatles’ popularity and stuck Help! leftover “I’ve Just Seen a Face” at the front of the record in the hopes of goosing the populace turned the U.S. Rubber Soul into a masterpiece of mid-tempo, angsty pop.
Of course, McCartney would go on to play “Drive My Car” at the Super Bowl. And iTunes has “righted” the “wrong” by making only the U.K. edition of Rubber Soul available in their U.S. store. But “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” with that cascading collection of notes that come tumbling out of those three acoustic guitars, sets a tone in perfect concordance with the album’s celebrated cover. Not that Rubber Soul doesn’t have its lighter moments–the bleached-white chorus of “The Word” is still present–but it’s the Beatles’ most emotionally powerful record, and certainly their most accessible. Where the early records’ chime and patina of Beatlemania can often obscure its moodiness, and the later material either avoided present reality or offered the sappy kinds of answers that the prophets were by-then expected to give, Rubber Soul is grounded, concerned with insecurity and self-consciousness. Its problems aren’t cosmetic or cosmic; they’re pedestrian, and so we have them, too.
The album’s emotional freight weighs down its lighter moments, rendering them more honest. Two years earlier, a song like “You Won’t See Me” might have melted into its own gooey core, but here, lying in the wake of “Norwegian Wood,” it stabilizes itself around barroom piano. By the time the upstroked chorus comes around the second time, the kinks of angst have been massaged out. “The Word” repeats the trick in the very next song, breaking out into a full trot. Later, McCartney will send a writhing fuzz-bass line through “I’m Looking Through You.” These flourishes, and the songs they decorate, feel of a piece with one another, the bright center from which the record’s chiaroscuro shades.
Those shadows produce the album’s best track, one of the finest songs the Beatles would ever produce. Though it’s been used to score countless high-school graduations and baby-boomer funerals and everything in between, “In My Life” remains a perfect piece of songwriting, perhaps the emotional centerpiece of the group’s entire catalogue. It’s easy to carp at the song’s nostalgia, particularly given our current age’s devotion to the memory of its own experiences, and Lennon was all of twenty-five when he wrote it, only a little more than halfway through his brief life. But the song shows exactly how much life as a Beatle had aged Lennon (and McCartney, whose exact role in the song’s composition is disputed, but who was nevertheless involved); though they were only a few hours down the road from their boyhood homes, only a few years removed from their childhoods, it all had to have felt by that time completely inaccessible. Regardless of who wrote it, the vocal melody and the song’s pacing are gentle and intricate, and Ringo’s start-stop lines should have put an end to the idea that he was a second-rate drummer. Everything here is in service of the lyric, which is itself in service of the sweet and terrible realization that the nostalgic past, that unlikely confluence of conditions and relationships making moments that seem hyper-genuine, innocent in the extreme, lies. Real life, real love–and that’s what “In My Life” is, a love song–spots the lie. It has to, if it wants to keep moving forward.